N.H. voters weigh in on shifting GOP field

Some see it as crowded, others seek more choices

By Shira Schoenberg
Globe Correspondent / June 7, 2011

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Forget the seven Republican presidential candidates set to debate Monday night in New Hampshire. Look beyond 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and former ambassador to China Jon Huntsman. Gene Bryant, a Salem, N.H., resident who works in manufacturing, is hoping Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan will throw his hat into the 2012 race. He admires Ryan’s nerve in coming up with a budget plan.

“The more the merrier,’’ Bryant said. “Start with a pile of stuff, and work through it. The country is facing serious problems, and no one person has all the answers.’’

Don’t tell that to Bill O’Meara, a retired firefighter from North Conway, who is waiting for the presidential field to narrow.

“The field’s so widespread that people detract from the main focus: to get the current administration out of office,’’ O’Meara said.

That doesn’t stop O’Meara from listing among his favorite candidates former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose jumping into the race would, well, widen the field.

While several contenders officially announced their candidacies in the last month — among them, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, and former House speaker Newt Gingrich — the Republican field remains unsettled. People like Huntsman and Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann are still weighing runs. Republican activists like New Hampshire’s former Senate candidate Ovide Lamontagne and former governor John Sununu are waiting to endorse. Of nearly 30 New Hampshire voters interviewed over the last two weeks, the most common theme was this: They’re watching the shifting field and waiting to learn more.

“It’s somewhat comical the amount of characters involved,’’ said Jeff Homer, of Manchester, who works in information technology.

Most comical, Homer said, was real estate mogul Donald Trump’s brief flirtation with running. Now, Homer, 29, is “uberinterested’’ in Pawlenty — though he, as a supporter of collective bargaining, wants to know more about Pawlenty’s relationship with unions. He is also interested in the independent spirits of Representative Ron Paul of Texas and his son, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has said he is not running.

Jennifer Horn, a former Republican congressional nominee and founder of the limited-government advocacy group We the People, said there are enough strong candidates already.

“There is some danger for Republican activists to spend too much time pining away for people who are not simply going to become candidates,’’ Horn said.

“I don’t want to see someone run for the highest office in the nation who doesn’t really want to do it,’’ Horn added. “I’m focusing on those candidates who put their hat in the ring, who are fully committed to the effort, fully enthusiastic.’’

Several voters said they are leaning toward Romney. Ken Smith, a Nashua retiree, said he is impressed that Romney knew how to compromise while governing a Democratic state.

“I like a middle-of-the-roader,’’ Smith said.

But others dislike Romney’s Massachusetts health care plan, which includes an individual mandate and is similar to President Obama’s federal health care reform, which Romney opposes.

“He looks like a hypocrite,’’ said Nashua retiree Robert LaFrance.

Conservative-leaning voters say they are choosing from a wide range of potential options, including Bachmann, Palin, and businessman Herman Cain.

John Ferlins, a retired computer salesman from Hollis who sympathizes with the Tea Party movement, said he likes Bachmann’s values and Pawlenty’s record of achievement. He wishes Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey would get in — or maybe Ryan.

“I wish Gingrich would get out of there,’’ Ferlins said. “He can’t control his commentary, and the net effect is he’s irrationally hurting GOP efforts to reduce the deficit and fix Medicare, by thoughtlessly trashing it.’’

Judy Adamske, a retired speech therapist from Manchester who is involved with the Tea Party movement, likes Cain’s honesty, Gingrich’s focus on constitutional principles, and Pawlenty’s willingness to challenge ethanol subsidies in Iowa. “I like a lot of them,’’ she said. “I think others may jump in.’’

Several politically involved Republicans said they wish activists were less focused on speculating about newcomers.

“Unfortunately, a lot of attention is being paid to candidates who have not gotten into the race, when a lot of excellent candidates are in the race,’’ said New Hampshire House majority leader D.J. Bettencourt.

But for many voters, it is simply a game of wait and see. Bob Jursik, a Penacook data analyst, is counting on more Republicans getting in the race. But he is not disappointed with the field.

“It’s unfortunate to suggest there is a magic Republican out there who will go poof out of the ground, and poof he wins the presidency,’’ Jursik said. “You make do with what you have.’’

Shira Schoenberg can be reached at